The Florence of the Upper Paleolithic
32 900 - 30 000 BP
The Panel of the Leopards and Rhinos in the End Chamber of Chauvet
Chauvet Cave in the valley of the Ardèche River in France is crowded with paintings, engravings and drawings of cave lions, mammoths, rhinos, bison, cave bears and horses. It contains the earliest (oldest) cave paintings among the three great caves, Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira. The cave was discovered in 1994 and is now closed to the public.
Situated on a limestone cliff above the prehistoric course of the
Ardèche River before the Pont d'Arc opened up, Chauvet is
uncharacteristically large and the quality, quantity, and condition
of the artwork found on its walls is stunning. Most of the artwork
dates to the earlier, Aurignacian, era (32 000 to 30 000 years BP) A
later Gravettian occupation, which occurred 27 000 to 25 000 years
ago, left little but a child's footprints, the charred remains of
ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the
caves. After the child's visit to the cave, evidence suggests that
the cave had been cut off by a rockfall and remained untouched until
discovered in 1994. The footprints may be the oldest human footprints
that can be dated accurately. Near-toxic levels of carbon dioxide and
radon mean that visitors can enter the cave for only a few hours a
As of 1999, the dates of 31 samples from the cave had been reported, with the earliest being 32,900±490 BP.
These three bears are found near the prehistoric entrance [not the
present entrance] to the cave, on a panel in a small recess. The
bears are drawn in red. The central bear has been shaded using the
natural relief in the cave wall, with the shoulder following the the
The central bear is a complete figure, whilst to the left of it is an isolated bear head, and to the right of it a near complete bear. This may depict a sleuth of bears. The artist used a technique known as 'stump-drawing' - he used his fingers or a piece of hide to paint the muzzle and to emphasize the outlines of the head and forequarters; a form of perspective Bradshaw Foundation
This is a panel located near the cave entrance composed of a cluster of large dots, which may have represented a mammoth (part of the head has been wahed off by dripping water). It is perhaps one of the earliest examples of pointillism. The scientists discovered that the dots were created by covering the palm of the right hand with wet red paint and applying the hand to the wall. The consistency of the dots suggests that the painting was created by one person. The artist would have had an image in his or her mind before beginning the piece. In other words, it appears not to be a random composition. Bradshaw Foundation
The principal animal of this panel has been interpreted as a hyena due to its spotted coat, although its general form resembles that of a bear. Several other animals accompany this representation. One feline, which could be a panther, has a spotted coat and characteristic tail. There is also a large bear, an ibex head, a small vertical bear, and an acephalous ibex.
The panther from the above painting enlarged
The Horse is found near the Owl below, and has been drawn using the same technique. The figure is complete, showing details such as the full mane, its eye and a furry chest. However, this engraving is not entirely representational, as the legs taper into lines, whilst other lines echo the mane and the back. There are also unexplained parallel lines under the Horse. Length 120 cm
notice it has turned its head backwards as owls are wont to do!
This is considered one of the most important panels of Chauvet. It contains twenty animals. The drama is clear to see, highlighted by the rhinoceroses confronting each other. This is unique in Palaeolithic art. The two rhinos were drawn at the same time, probably by the same artist. The charcoal used has been dated between approximately 30,000 and 32,000 years before present.
The four horsesí heads were drawn in charcoal after the rhinos as well as the other animals - two more rhinos, a stag and two mammoths - on this panel, which as elsewhere in the cave had been prepared and scraped. Of the four horses, the top one was drawn first and the lowest one drawn last. The artist who drew the horses - almost certainly one and the same artist - mixed the charcoal with the surface clay to obtain various hues and visual effects [shading and perspective]. The technique was stump-drawing, as well as scraping the outer edges of the images to highlight them with a pale aura.
The four horses....
and the fighting rhinos Bradhaw Foundation
Another, triple representation of horses whose heads are emphasized by shading. A film of calcite colored orange by iron oxide seals the drawing, allowing for an accurate dating by the U/Th isotope-technique. One can observe the play of intertwining lines between the horses and the large lion (L. approx. 1.6 m). The feline heads are very expressive
The Megaceros. Length 50 cm..
The Megaloceros is an extinct type of giant moose. It was drawn in charcoal with lines drawn rapidly and confidently, and finished with some stumping. This animal, which disappeared more than 10,000 years ago, had impressive antlers, although they are not depicted here, despite the detail given to the rest of the animal's features. Notice how different activities occurred on this panel: black paintings, clawmarks, scrapings and black drawings.
...and more deer, bisons, and a horse in the conecting tunnel to the End Chamber
Another drawing of a megaloceros with its charcteristic hump overlaid by a horse.
The red color is iron-oxide which bled from the rock, not paint applied by the artist. Compared to the other, later caves, there is very little painting in this cave – except for shadings
A part of the panel of the cave lions in the End Chamber once more.
Two especially life-like cave lions, side by side. The male lion is identifiable by his scrotum, drawn in the background, and a female lion in the foreground, which appears to be rubbing against him. Given the size of this drawing, the elegant and simplistic lines demonstrate a great confidence in the artist's hand. Notice also the red line that echoes the outline of the male lion, and separates the two felines. One explanation is that the red line was drawn first in order to position the drawings of the lions, one above and one below. This argument presupposes a conception of the whole, which would not be the first example on show in this cave. Another explanation is that the artist realised the artistic impact a change of colour, particularly red, would give the composition, Bradshaw Foundation
In the End Chamber, a pillar facing the entrance is decorated with two drawn bisons. They are shaded and engraving emphasizes their outlines.
Using a remotely controlled camera a new discovery has been made in the end chamber of the Chauvet Cave in 1999: the Venus of Chauvet. Only the vulva, the breasts and two long legs are depicted on a down-hanging, phallic-looking protuberance. It is framed by two felines and a little further away, a mammoth. They seem to follow a small musk-ox beyond.
Meanwile a better photograph of the protuberance, which shows the
peripheral drawings clearer, has revealed a figure, half man, half
bison (I read it as a cave lion) next to the frontal view of the
vulva. This creature has been dubbed “the Sorcerer”.
“The Sorcerer folds around and faces into the pubic triangle. This is certainly a powerful composition, perhaps symbolizing a relationship between a mortal woman and a supernatural animal spirit.” Photo and quote from Bradshaw Foundation.
My intial question “Who Painted the Cave of Chauvet?” does not have an answer. The artists were surely H.sapiens, Neanderthals had no hand in it. Our dating methods are too inaccurate to determine how long it took the artist(s) to paint that cave. I believe that all the mayor panels in Chauvet were painted by one artist, the style and the emotional content is highly uniform. It may have taken all his short life of 20-30 years; It took Michelangelo 5 years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1100 square meters) and another 7 to finish the Last Judgement. Chauvet is larger - This opinion is contested by Christian Züchner, who on stylistic grounds distiguishes a black (charcoal) from a red (ochre) period, 15 000 years apart.
This certainly is not the case in Altamira and Lascaux: There many generations of artists have been at work – and the general public contributed too through their ubiquitous, graffiti-like “engravings” leaving counterfeits of themselves in the less sacred places.